In his stunningly frank and honest memoir Alan Greenspan reveals what the Republican game plan was with tax cuts. And it was just what Democrats all along supposed. Tax cuts were the party's ticket to success at the polls and to hell with the budget consequences.
Greenspan relates a conversation he had with Jack Kemp, the Buffalo congressman who championed tax cuts and ran for vice president with Bob Dole. Kemp admitted in a conversation with Greenspan in the late seventies that large tax cuts would be irresponsible, but said he favored them nonetheless. The Democrats were always being irresponsible, increasing spending to win elections. When the Republicans eventually came to power they'd usually cut spending to balance the budget, earning them respectability but losing them votes. It was time, Kemp told Greenspan, for the Republicans to get a little irresponsible.
Greenspan says he was appalled at Kemp's logic. But few other Republicans were, it would appear. So for 25 years they championed tax cuts and more tax cuts. For much of that time they also won election after election. Tax cutting was very good politics.
You can almost wholly explain Republican success at the polls during that period by tax cuts and two or three other things: the move of the country to the suburbs, the Democratic Party's championship of civil rights, and Ronald Reagan's winning personality.
Thank you Alan for helping us all see more clearly what has been happening.
In fairness Kemp was right about the Democrats' strategy. It was, as Ickes confessed in the 1930s, to spend and spend and elect and elect.
So both parties have adopted politically inspired policies to draw votes.
Republicans though happened to be wrong that the Democrats were bankrupting the country. Democrats never went that far. While they routinely ran deficits the deficits by and large were relatively small (except during WW II, of course).
Republicans on the other hand ran enormous deficits during two administrations: Reagan's and now Bush's.
Reagan's deficits had to be offset with tax increases starting in 1983 with the largest tax increase ever in American history (up to that time). But of course Reagan didn't call it a tax increase. He called it social security reform. (Greenspan, by the way, headed the commission that drafted the proposals.) Bush I eventually paid the political price for Reagan's deficits by backing the tax increase of 1990 that roiled Republican waters. ("Read my lips. No new taxes.")
Someone is going to have to pay the price for Bush's tax cuts. Who? We'll see.
There's just one way out of the bind for Democrats. Find an Eisenhower to run. (No, I don't mean John Kerry.) I mean a real honest to goodness super military hero like Ike, who is so popular with the American people that the opposition wouldn't dare try to defile him.
Unfortunately, there aren't any Eisenhowers around. Which is too bad. We desperately need an Eisenhower.
Watching Ken Burns's series this week reinforced my belief that Ike was a spectacularly well-equipped leader to run for president. As is shown in the moving section on D-Day -- the best part of the series thus far, in my opinion--organizing the invasion of France was a terribly complicated and burdensome job.
We don't have anyone around today who's faced a similar challenge (thank god!).
But is it too much to ask that the voters be given the choice to select someone who has borne great responsibilities and carried them out with good judgment?
That's what I want in a president.*
*It's not all I want. I also want a president who shares my political agenda.
But this episode is only one example of various forms of intentional or accidental misdirection: red herrings, smokescreens, bait-and-switch, bread and circuses, the trivialization of mainstream news, and so on. Willy nilly, the Iraq War crisis itself serves as a distraction from the failing war in Afghanistan and perhaps the real possibility that the Bush-Cheney administration will bring on a catastrophe even greater than that in Iraq by attacking Iran before the 2008 elections (see Scott Ritter's warning about this). Even the much touted threat of terror attack distracts us from greater looming catastrophes.
I'll just mention two: human-accelerated climate change (aka global warming—surely we all know about the reality of this process by now) and the gathering economic crisis. The United States is in debt to the rest of the world, with China holding a large part of that debt; the exchange rate for the U.S. dollar is down (even compared to the formerly maligned Canadian dollar!); the middle class is disappearing; the housing bubble has burst; the unproductive finance-capital sector of the economy is larger than others; etc. John Bogle, a capitalist himself, addressed these and other issues on the PBS TV program"Bill Moyers Journal" last night (September 28).
The camera unfortunately did not show host Tim Russert's face. I wish it had. I would loved to have seen his expression. For several years Russert has been singing from the George W. Bush sheet of music about"the crisis of Social Security." He has sneered at the Democratic Party politicians on his show who said the system is not in crisis and assured his viewers that the pols knew it was but lacked the courage to tell the truth.
All along it has been apparent that Russert simply was reading from the talking points of the Concord Coalition, Pete DuPont's often useful but also misguided non-profit. Confident he was right Russert failed to look deeply into the numbers he regularly cited even though they have been debunked by economists like Dean Baker and historians Edward Berkowitz and Max Skidmore. (See HNN Hot Topics: Social Security.)
For the record: Social Security is not broke. The system has enough IOU's to cover the insured until the 2040s and even then the shortfall is small relative to the revenues of the government. To be sure sometime in the next half dozen years or so the system will stop producing the surpluses that have helped offset government deficits, surpluses that the pols have become addicted to like crack. A reckoning is coming. But it won't be because Social Security is broke. It will be because the government is broke. The government won't have the Social Security surpluses to spend. Worse, the government will have to use general revenues to pay off the IOU's to the Social Security system. A double whammy. But I repeat: the system isn't broke.
Bush played on fears that the system is going broke in order to destroy it--an old Republican dream going back to the birth of Social Security. Journalists like Russert fell for the Bush approach because they didn't read widely enough in the Social Security literature to understand the subtle points in a complicated debate. Misinformed themselves, they misinformed the public. The public alas didn't want Social Security destroyed and insisted on keeping it as is. Russert no doubt regarded this as a sign of democratic error. It was. The public had no better understanding of Social Security than Russert. They simply wanted what they wanted. They resisted change as the founding fathers predicted they would. (As Forrest McDonald notes in Novus Ordo Seclorum, p. 161, in part the founders' faith in the people derived from their belief in"the force of inertia in human affairs." That is, people naturally resist change unless they are driven to it. See Federalist Papers, no. 27.)
Russert did not seize on the moment to ask Greenspan about Social Security. My guess is he didn't really notice what Greenspan said even though it flatly contradicted what Russert has been saying. For in the very next sentence Greenspan declaimed on the crisis in Medicare, which played to Russert's belief that the system is falling apart and few are paying attention.
But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this edition of MTP will mark a turning point. Maybe Russert learned something from his learned guest. But I'm guessing not.
I’ve written before about the underlying constitutional dilemma. The short version is this.
The constitution is designed to gridlock if a simply majority in Congress wants to change the status quo, unless the president is on that majority’s side. The status quo now is war, and the president still wants to wage it. Even if Congress could pass an anti-war bill, the president can veto it.
So Congress has two recourses. It can stop funding the war by not providing more money, but given the power of the president over the military, Congress would have to come close to not passing any funding at all. In the long run it would work, but it’s the governmental equivalent of braking a car by putting the transmission in “Park.”
The other is impeachment. I think there are grounds for impeachment in Bush’s attempts to legitimize torture. Unfortunately, I have little sense that the majority of the public agrees. Some have argued that the deceptions in the run up to the war amount to a high crime. They may be right, but Bush has had great success in convincing a significant percentage of the public that Saddam was connected to 9/11. About the hardest thing you can do in politics is convince people that they have been wrong. A million years of psychology is against you.
So you may ask, what about the conduct of the war itself? The war has been waged incompetently. Taking the Bush war aims as a given, we have never put in sufficient power to do more than overthrow Saddam Hussein. Again, even if one takes as a given that the current increase in troops has helped, there is no indication that it will have made more than a transitory difference when we begin to draw down forces. This the public understands.
But is incompetence a “high crime” or “misdemeanor?” I suspect the founders would have accepted that sustained gross incompetence on matters of vital interest to the nation could qualify. For mostly logical reasons, since 1787, we have come to define the terms in the light of criminal law. The upside is that this probably reduced the number of politically motivated impeachments in our history. The bad news is that without showing that Bush clearly violated a law that the public wants obeyed—or without showing with remarkable clarity that he has been lying about something that mattered (think of Nixon and the smoking gun tape)—they probably would not support removal from office.
And if Congress finally managed to remove Bush, the result would be Dick Cheney as president. (Intriguing counterfactual: what if Spiro Agnew had been vice-president in the summer of 1974?)
So what can Congress do. Well, just below, Melvin Small made a good suggestion. Force real filibusters. This present political stalemate is not going to be negotiated away quietly. Also a filibuster would force the supporters of the war to be clearer on what they think the US can do when the inevitable withdrawal of troops beings. If they make arguments that convince the public, so be it. If not, then a greater popular majority opposed to the war may begin to do to Bush and his supporters what the Democratic majority has failed to do: force change.
This is history repeating itself.
In 1992 it was Gephardt who settled on health care as an important issue. Bill Clinton, knowing a hot headline when he sees one, grabbed the issue and made it his own. That's why we got the Hillarycare proposal.
Now once again a Clinton is being pushed into the national health care debate to fend off a primary challenger.
That's ok with me. This is how politics works.
The insanity is not simply that we are using mercenary forces. It is that we rely on mercenary forces for basic security, and we have established a legal situation in which they have no masters except, maybe, the Bush Administration.
For those who like to talk about an Imperial America, I can think of no better evidence than our demanding that these forces be outside of Iraqi law. Extraterritoriality is what the British, the French, and every other imperial power has demanded for its troops and mercenaries.
That the Bush administration has exempted these forces from Iraqi law shows how little it really trusts the Iraqi government. That these forces are also outside American law is more proof that this administration remains both arrogant and incompetent. Iraqis see these forces as American, as well they should. We brought them there, and their crimes are on our hands. If we do not act, the Iraqis will draw their own conclusions.
If we cannot act, if as the linked article states these forces so essential that they cannot be curtailed, then what reason do we have to think that we can control anything else there? What good can such uncontrolled forces accomplish?
One last thought: to what extent is the proposed force drawdown dependent on maintaining or even increasing our reliance on private forces like Blackwater?
These are the sort of things that we—both our nation and our species--do well, and I wish that we did many more of them.
But he mistakenly insists that aside from Jimmy Carter, who speaks Spanish, no other recent president can speak a foreign language. (George W. Bush's Spanish is said to be inadequate.) Actually, Bush's father is fluent in French and spoke with foreign leaders in French. FDR was fluent in both German and French. As a boy he wrote his mother letters in German.
JFK famously had trouble even memorizing a few words in German. On the flight over to Europe to give his Berlin speech he repeated the phrase Ich bin ein Berliner over and over and still had trouble remembering the pronunciation. (His wife jackie was fluent in French, of course.)
Woodrow Wilson of course was fluent in German (as a PhD in history he had to learn German). James Garfield taught the classics and was said to be able to write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other simultaneously.
Going back earlier takes you to Jefferson (French), Martin Van Buren (Dutch, as Bill Poser correctly notes), John Quincy Adams (7 languages, according to Wilentz, including French, and German).
And just to finish this off on a light note: You can always include Andrew Jackson, who when awarded a Harvard honorary degree was said to have replied:"E pluribus unum, my friends, sine qua non." He didn't. His enemies used the story to discredit him while his friends boasted that the phrase aptly summed up his philosophy, Our federal union, it must be preserved!
(Note: My list is incomplete. I suspect with a little research it would include many more names.)
Add TR to the list.
Received this from Lewis Gould:"TR recited poetry in French and German. 'German prose never became really easy to me in the sense that French prose did, but for German poetry I care as much as for English poetry.' TR Autobiography, Scribner's edition, 1926, p. 23."
Defending the invasion of Iraq and his persistence in occupying this devastated and divided country, President George W. Bush has often invoked the authority of The Verdict of History, insisting that it will at some point in the future prove that his Iraq policies were both noble and correct.
But how does he know that the verdict of history will prove him right? When people use this argument, they usually mean that historians of the future will be able to reconstruct and assess the true history of today's policies and events with the benefit of more abundant empirical evidence, a knowledge of how things turned out, and the perspective and wisdom of hindsight—that is, a perspective that is not only informed but also free of the petty partisan disputes that accompany all present-day events. But how can Bush know the future? How can he know what historians will say? And isn't he also partisan? Does he have a crystal ball? A time-machine? Evidence he cannot share with us for fear of undermining the "war on terror"? ( What kind of evidence could that possibly be ?)
Of course, we all know that those who appeal to The Verdict of History are desperate. Bush is desperate, and that is why he is embracing this historical security blanket. The overwhelming majority of his compatriots do not believe he can or will succeed in Iraq even if the troops stay there for years or decades. They do not even know what Bush means by success. In any case, they question the costs of the war in relation to its putative necessity. His former aides and allies are bailing out or jumping ship. A recent survey revealed that 45 percent of active-duty personnel in America's volunteer army report low morale compared to 19 percent reporting high morale, and an unusually large number have called the war a failure. Bush's poll numbers are also way down. His credibility is gone. Therefore, he tells us—the citizenry and soldiery—to trust him, hang on, and await The Verdict of History. Not only does he take refuge in the future but he may even believe it's true: history will judge him to have been Churchillian; his presidential legacy will be redeemed.
Even Nixon was more honest—or at least more honest with himself if not the public. When Kissinger told him in 1974 that despite his Watergate-forced resignation history would judge him one of the great presidents, Nixon responded, “That depends, Henry, on who writes the history.” For the rest of their lives, Nixon and Kissinger expended an enormous amount of time and energy trying to rewrite that history and obstruct others from getting at the truth. Perhaps G. W. Bush intends to rewrite the history of his administration after he leaves office, and maybe Karl Rove resigned his office in order to get a head start on the process.
In any case, Bush's invocation of The Verdict of History ignores the history of The Verdict of History. Long ago, observant and thoughtful historians like Bernadotte Schmitt, Pieter Geyl, Thomas J. Pressly, and Page Smith pointed out that the interpretations of the historians who wrote long after the historical event in question pretty much replicated the interpretations of the historical actors in the event and the first generation of pundits, journalists, and historians who originally wrote about the event. In other words, the writing of history is an"argument without end" in the sense that the original arguments or interpretations about a great historical event, such as a war, are fated to be repeated ad infinitum. The debate goes on—and on. So, what is said about George W. Bush's war now—whether pro, con, or neutral—will be repeated in the future. There is no Verdict of History.
I hasten to qualify this observation. Although the vying interpretations about a historical event tend to be repeated into the future, these interpretations are not created equal. Some are better—i.e., truer—than others. Normally, one is superior—depending on the questions asked and answered and the availability of evidence on the event. Contrary to post-structuralist/postmodernist relativism and Fox News, what happened in the past is “not your truth or my truth”—to borrow a phrase from author Thomas Mallon. There is one truth (depending on the questions asked and answered—and I am not talking about truth with a capital T, as in the meaning or purpose of life and the universe).
The reason that history is an argument without end (even though one version is truer than others) is that it is virtually impossible to convince others of the truth of one's logic and evidence if those others refuse to be convinced—even if they share one's historical methodology, and often they do not share one's historical methodology. It is different in most of the sciences, where other scientists can repeat the experiment, therefore proving that the theory is correct or incorrect. But one cannot repeat history.
What this means is that President Bush will not be redeemed by The Verdict of History, although he will no doubt try to write history that concludes he was right.
Oh, by the way, ofttimes the perspective of future hindsight is not superior to the perspective of those who live in the present; and sometimes the passions of the present that are lacking in the future lead one to ask the right questions that in turn lead to the right answers; and, usually, those future historians and observers who will render their verdicts on history will be just as partisan as we allegedly are in the present.
It has become clearer to me in the past month or two that the"moderate" Republican position on the Iraq problem is entirely political. Namely, their political strategy has been and will be to call on Bush to withdraw some troops in order ostensibly to put pressure on the Iraq government to"meet the benchmarks." At the same time, they will oppose congressional measures to force Bush to do this. Thus Warner, Voinovich, et al will be in a position to say that they were morally correct and voter-responsive in calling for disengagement.
They of course know that Bush will begin to withdraw the"surge" troops in 2008. Why? Because he has to: the army is seriously overextended. Even the pliant generals acknowledge this. Not surprisingly, this partial withdrawal will be politically convenient insofar as President Bush and congressional Republicans will claim that sufficient success has been achieved in Iraq to justify the surge and continue the war-that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Republican base and some independents will be assuaged. At the same time, Bush and the conservative congressional Republicans will accuse the Democrats of being defeatists and of not supporting the troops. They hope that this strategy will serve to save Republican seats in the election.
Everything will turn on what is happening in Iraq. Despite the administration's spin, all the signs are that no decisive military progress has been made, that the political scene is ever more chaotic, and that the region is in turmoil.
Meanwhile, the mainstream chattering classes debate the pros and cons of the surge as though it just might be working, and they predict that Warner's call for a symbolic, token withdrawal is a significant sign of fissure in the Republican bloc (which it isn't). Most of the pundits essentially ignore the political strategy that Bush and the Republicans are following. Even the Democrats (especially the Blue Dogs and Bush Dogs) seem to ignore this strategy, mainly because they are blinded by fears that they will be accused of"not supporting the troops" or of being"soft on terror." Most of the public, meanwhile, is asleep-or just coping with a broken health care system, heat and drought, storms and floods, a financial crisis, and other woes.
The exit strategies that civilian critics of the Iraq War—let's call them"doves"—have proposed ever since the first year of the war have consisted of several elements. These include: some combination of phased U.S. troop withdrawals within six to twelve months; good-faith negotiations with interested parties in and out of Iraq (including Iran and Syria); parallel negotiations aimed at solving broader Middle East issues (such as Iran's nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict); U.S. renunciation of permanent military bases and control of Iraq's oil; and economic measures to assist in Iraq's recovery.
President Bush, his administration, and his staunchest supporters—let me call them"hawks"—have rejected these proposals, labeling withdrawal"timetables" as nothing less than" cut and run" strategies.
Middle-of-the-roaders or fence-sitters—who would probably like to be called"owls"—have been deeply bothered about the folly, cost-ineffectiveness, and immorality of the war but have also been stuck in a quandary, worried as they are about the dire domino effects that might result from phased U.S. troop withdrawals: expanded civil war in Iraq, the spread of Sunni-Shiite conflict, the loss of U.S. credibility, rising oil prices, and instability throughout the Middle East.
In his October 31, 2006 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Lt. General William E. Odom took the bull by the horns as only a general can—and get away with it in certain circles. First, he criticized the hawks' stubborn adherence to the doctrine of credibility and their illusions about creating democracy in Iraq, defending Israel, containing terrorism, and"not allowing our fallen soldiers to have died in vain." Second, he proposed a dovish" cut-and-run" exit strategy calling for U.S. troop withdrawals in six months, multilateral inclusion of U.S. friends and allies in solution-seeking negotiations with Iran, and the pursuit of a settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The strongest part of his argument had to do with his rejection of adverse consequences from this exit strategy; that is, adverse domino effects—although he did not use the phrase. I agree with him, and I am reminded of an argument made in July 1975, not long after the fall of Saigon, by W.R. Smyser, a hawkish adviser to Henry Kissinger. Ever since President Truman, one American president after another had warned that dominoes would fall if the United States failed to preserve a non-communist government in Vietnam. In pursuit of that highly abstract purpose, American troops and forces had been sent into the quagmire. After the fall of South Vietnam, Smyser, who had been tasked by Kissinger to examine the impact of this American defeat on "the dominoes" of Southeast Asia, found that they were adjusting well to the new situation. Instead of distancing themselves from the United States, they were pulling closer. In other words, there had been a “reverse domino” effect, essentially because they saw “little other option.” There were additional “complex” reasons for the reverse domino effect, he said, which were unique to each country (Memo, Smyser to Kissinger, July 15, 1975, subj: The Situation in Asia, folder: Southeast Asia (3), box 1, Country File, National Security Advisor: Presidential Country Files for East Asia and the Pacific, 1974-1977, G. R. Ford Library).
All argue that it was WW II which brought us out of the Depression. This leads them to draw two conclusions: A. the New Deal was a failure and B. the free market should have been left alone to fix itself.
I have never understood how B follows A.
What evidence is there that the economy could have fixed itself? There is none. What evidence we have is that more government intervention was needed not less. WW II after all marked the high point of government intervention in the free enterprise system. The defense budget in 1940 was four times what the whole budget had been two years earlier. And in subsequent years the defense budget grew even more.
Hoover's intervention in the economy undoubtedly was negative. His embrace of Smoot-Hawley was a disaster. But since when was a high tariff evidence of radicalism? In the context of American politics from the 1830s on it was always business interests which lobbied for high tariffs. William McKinley, no radical he (ask Karl Rove) campaigned on the resoration of a high tariff.
Lumping in Hoover with FDR, as Shlaes and other New Deal critics do, underestimates Hoover's essential conservatism. Was he not a major proponent of the unfettered free enterprise system? Did he not blast the New Deal as socialism?
To cast both Hoover and FDR in the same boat is illogical. Worse, it does grave disservice to history. The waters in which they sailed clearly led one to lean right and the other left. There never was a danger of their ships running into one another in the middle of the night. They were in different oceans.
Too often the government has lied to itself as well as the American people. Now at last the government seems to be willing to tell itself the truth.
This is a break with tradition.
In 1964 CIA Director John McCone told the truth about Vietnam to LBJ. He told the president the war was being lost despite optimstic statements by Secretary of Defense McNamara's Pentagon. Vietnam's leaders lacked public support. The insurgents were well-organized. Our strategy was failing. LBJ's reaction was to freeze out McCone, much as Colin Powell was frozen out by President Bush after he made his contrary views known about the Iraq War. For months on end the president of the United States declined to see the director of the CIA. McCone eventually resigned--a loss to the American government. McCone had been a great asset. In the Cuban Missile Crisis it was McCone who decried the invasion plans backed at first by JFK.
In 1967 the agency was under the leadership of Richard Helms. Helms was pressured by Walt Rostow and others inside the government to sanitize reports about Vietnam. One report had concluded flatly that we were losing the war. Helms was forced to rewrite it to say things were improving. At the same time Helms produced a highly confidential memo to President Johnson which said flat out that the US was losing the war and was bound to lose it because in wars of this type--wars involving well-supported and popular insurgents bent on revolution--the United States cannot employ the necessary means to achieve victory. LBJ ditched the report.
We should be grateful the CIA is now telling the president and the world the truth about our latest war. We need to know that the leaders of Iraq whom we have backed are not sufficiently strong to succeed. It is vital to speak the truth to avoid another Vietnam. We have had enough of wars based on lies that go on endlessly at a cost of tens of thousands of American lives (not to mention the millions of lives lost in Vietnam and the hundreds of thousands* lost thus far in Iraq).
*Of course, this is an estimate.
SOURCE: Tim Wiener's LEGACY OF ASHES.
In many world societies, however, there are still spaces—if only interior, or metaphorical, or temporal—set aside for contemplation, for noiseless recalibration of the soul, and in contemporary American culture there are almost none. Our social rituals are constrained by the incessant soundtrack imposed in our public spaces, and our places of worship, by and large, have given themselves over to a muzak-based sense of liturgy that tells us at every step of the way what to feel and with what intensity.
I think this is why I no longer listen to candidates.
Oh I am interested in what they think, and what they do, and how they might govern, but I no longer consider any sounds that they make a reliable guide. Their sounds are muzak, designed to elicit emotion and muzzle thought. And as Rick pointed out the other day, good campaigns are about emotion, brilliant campaigns about “grudges.”
Debates are a bit better. At least in those the performers have to show some improvisational skill. But debate formats limit those moments to a few sharp licks. No extended solos, please, where you might really show your stuff (or ramble your way to nowhere and then slink back to the chorus).
Again from Waggoner:
For us to be able to enter the world that music creates for us, we need a silence within which to listen.
Put the political sounds down in writing and I am happier. In a quiet setting, or even some noisy ones, I have time to think about the words, to detach them away from their delivery and their accompaniment, and consider what they mean. Interviews are even better. I actually learned something about Hillary Clinton from this Salon interview (subscription may be required.) It gave me a glimpse of what she thinks and how she reasons. Idealized to be sure. But having it on paper—or in my computer at least—allows me to the space consider what the ideal may reveal about the reality.
Why bother with these things? With rare exception, these set pieces are composed to minimize communication by the distribution of a few plucky facts in a 1000 strings of emotion. So I don’t listen any more, even to those politicians I respect.
What have social scientists found? For half a century they have studied elections scientifically and for that same period they have always come up with the same answer. Elections are always about the past.
Even when a campaign seems to be about the future it's about the past.
Say a candidate (Obama?) comes to town and tells your friends and neighbors he offers a new politics (whatever that means). That sounds like somebody selling you something about the future. But what he is really selling you is hope. And he is selling you hope because he knows a lot of people, demoralized by Bush administration incompetence over the past six and a half years, are out of hope. That is to say, he is telling you the future won't be like the past. Translation: the election is about the past.
As I wrote in a post in October 2006 in the run-up to the congressional elections:
People don't vote for something so much as they vote against something.
Elections are referendums on the past. As V.O. Key noted in The Responsible Electorate (1966):
"Critics of the American party system fret because the minority party does not play the role of an imaginative advocate heralding the shape of a new world. In truth, it gains votes most notably from among those groups who are disappointed by, who disapprove of, or who regard themselves as injured by, the actions of the Administration. The opposition can maximize its strength as it centers its fire on those elements of the Administration program disliked by the largest numbers of people."
It's useful to remember what elections are really about as we head into the 2008 campaign. Much as we wish to escape to the future the past keeps holding us back. The candidate who nurses carefully the grudges Americans hold is likely to have a powerful claim on their affections.
Under these two presidents the CIA sent thousands of foreign agents to their deaths in both Eastern Europe and Asia and then lied to Congress about what had happened, telling senators that the agents dropped into North Korea were not agents at all. Word had leaked out that some of the agents had been captured and tortured and the source of misinformation sent back to the states and that others had turned out to be spies for the other side. Rather than admit to what happened CIA officials either said that the agents were casualties of war or that they'd known all along that the agents were spies and used them to gain information about the espionage work of North Korea and China.
The lesson of the book is that officials running a secret government will make mistakes over and over again because they can without fear of penalty.
A good example is Project Artichoke, which was personally overseen by Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, and Frank Wisner. For years the CIA ran a secret prison in Panama where it tortured foreign agents and subjected them to drug experiments including heroin and LSD. Many died or lost their minds. The experiments continued even though there was no evidence we could control the minds of the prisoners, which was the goal of the operation. The immorality of the operation seems barely to have been considered.
It was a scary time. After the Soviets got the atomic bomb Ike worried that we might face a choice between democracy or survival. He told a meeting of the National Security Council that we had to consider the possibility that the Cold War might end in the destruction of our way of life.
My sympathy for Eisenhower is enormous. He's my favorite president of the second half of the 20th century. Few other presidents have approached national security problems with the same seriousness of purpose and cogency of thought. When he realized the limits of intelligence from human sources he began the intense search for technology that could be used to ferret out the secrets of the Soviet state, culminating in the development of the U2 spy plane, which helped reassure the US government that the Soviets were not planning a surprise attack.
But the history Tim Weiner so ably relates points out the great difficulty of assuring competence in an organization based on secrecy. Time and again the CIA failed and was never held to account.
In one twelve month period during the Truman administration the agency made three enormous blunders in a row. (1) Three days before the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb the agency confidently predicted the USSR wouldn't be able to do so for years. (2) The agency was taken by surprise when the North Koreans invaded South Korea in 1950. (3) The agency told Truman there was no chance the Chinese would cross the Yalu during the war just a few days before they did. Secrecy protected the agency from public retribution. In subsequent years more blunders followed. To be sure, there were also successes--or operations like the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran which seemed at the time like successes. But the agency never lived up to its reputation.
The Bush administration celebrates secrecy. One wonders what we'll discover later about the operations that failed that we knew nothing about. I would guess there are more than a few.
But the more I have read about it, the worse it gets. This was not a hard-fought compromise. This was a failure of will, with the sunset provision as its only redeeming feature.
The clearest indication of that failure is the power that the act gives to Attorney General Gonzales, in conjunction with National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell. These men can issue warrants, something only a judge can or should do. In short, a lot of Democrats and nearly all Republicans voted to give a hack apparatchik extraordinary power.
That’s very different from acknowledging presidential authority. Of necessity he wields great constitutional power so long as he is in office. That’s not so true for the office of the Attorney General. To a large extent Congress sets the limits of his power.
Americans don’t trust Gonzales and rightly so. A majority of Democrats, including many who voted for this bill (and a fairly large number of Republicans who should not be let off the hook either), have said that he cannot be trusted. The Democrats could have sent to the president a version that cut Gonzales out, that did not contain nearly so many compromises, and that made the Administration’s veracity and competence the issue. Instead they granted Gonzales more purely judicial power than any A-G has wielded before.
It should be remembered that majority of Democrats opposed this. And maybe this is a bit unfair to that majority. Being out-maneuvered is not always avoidable.
Yet the way that they were out-maneuvered and the whimpering one hears from them afterwards leaves a foul taste in the mouth. Of the commentators that I have read so far, Dahlia Lithwick has put it best.
With this FISA vote, the Democrats have compromised the investigation into the U.S. attorney scandal. They've shown themselves either to be participating in an empty political witch hunt or curiously willing to surrender our civil liberties to someone who has shown—time and again—that he cannot be trusted to safeguard them. The image of Democrats hypocritically berating the attorney general with fingers crossed behind their backs is ultimately no less appalling than an attorney general swearing to uphold the Constitution with fingers crossed behind his own.
Here's Davis's argument. Reagan, Clinton et al. let terrorists off the hook by not using the full might of the US against them when they attacked us. The result was that the terrorists had an incentive to continue attacking us. Hence the need for a new approach, which President Bush took after 9-11.
Davis is right of course that a new approach was needed after 9-11; given the scale of the attack EVERY president we've ever had including lilly-livered James Buchanan would have responded with force against the Taliban and bin Laden. But it does not follow that the fundamental approach of past presidents was in fact flawed in as serious a way as Bush's policies are.
Davis seems to believe that it is always within the power of US presidents to control events. If only Reagan had responded more forcefully to the attack on the Marines in Beirut UBL wouldn't have drawn the conclusion we were weak. Ditto for Clinton in Somalia. But would we really have been better off if these two presidents had launched invasions of Lebanon and Somalia? Iraq would suggest that invasions of these lands might not have gone as planned.
Clearly both Reagan and Clinton could have designed more effective policies in confronting the Islamist extremist threats we faced even in their day. But to equate their mistakes with Bush's is flawed reasoning. It was not clear in their time what other courses might be pursued. It has been clear throughout Bush's administration that his plans have been based on fairy tale understandings of the Middle East. His flaws have been greater by far.